After Gretchen Kasper-Hoffman’s first year of student teaching in one of Houston’s inner-city schools, Gretchen knew she wanted to continue her career educating students in urban school communities. Gretchen chose the k-12 education field because she desired to make a difference in the world, and she firmly believes “education is the most important thing.” Gretchen is in her 10th year as principal of Grady Middle School in Houston ISD. Grady adopted LivingTree in the fall of 2013 – before translation, directory, group code, and student user functionality. As principal of one of the first schools to implement LivingTree, principal Gretchen Kasper-Hoffman can speak to the critical relationship between parent engagement and student success.
Describe your parent engagement strategy and methodology prior to LivingTree: “We used our school website to post school-wide announcements and happenings, but our website platform was (and still is) hard to navigate. Teachers would also do weekly posts on the site. Teacher to parent correspondence would happen through emails and phone calls, and teachers would send letters home along with report cards. Alongside that, our PTO would send a weekly email blast out to parents.”
Why did you decide to use a new tool for parent engagement? “Well, the website was hard for us. It’s clunky, takes a long time to get into, and the results are never great. It was hard to make a blurb or post look pretty. I was initially attracted to LivingTree because it’s so much easier to drop a quick announcement or post of photos or files.”
What was your implementation of LivingTree like? “For our first year, we had a few LivingTree reps come out to lead a teacher training. This last year, one of our teachers who is very comfortable with LivingTree, led a training for the rest of the staff. For parents, we give out packets explaining what LivingTree is and how they can connect to the network. Our data system has outdated information for our parents, so we use group code to invite parents and students into their classes – we love the group code feature! I would like to have 95% of our parents and students on LivingTree next year. It helps that we are a feeder school to Briargrove Elementary, who also uses LivingTree. This means many of our parents are already on LivingTree when their students come to our school.”
What were your results using LivingTree? “LivingTree makes it so much easier to share information. Because we share so much, parents who missed the group code invitation will ask to be connected. I can see that our relationship with parents has improved. I do believe we have better engagement in our community since using LivingTree.”
What feature do you use the most? “We use inbox a lot. Our parents use inbox to communicate one-on-one with me and the teachers.”
What would you say to teachers who are hesitant to use technology for engagement? “We are able to get more information out with technology. After using LivingTree to communicate with parents, I encouraged LivingTree to add students as users because our students also want to know what is going on – they want to keep up on their grades, check their assignments, homework, etc. Now my kids are very active on LivingTree.”
What would you do if LivingTree were taken away? “I guess I would have to rely on Twitter…. Though it’s not easy to share information on Twitter.”
What one thing would you say about LivingTree to others? “LivingTree has the best customer support! When I contact support I know I will receive a response within seconds, and usually support will do the task or resolve the issue for me, so I don’t have to do anything! In fact, I’ve been meaning to reach out and see if I can set up an incoming 6th grade group to begin communicating with my new parents and students over the summer. Our district’s school messenger system does not roll over until August and that is too late for me. With LivingTree, I can start communicating with new Grady families now.”
LivingTree Pride: Abbey Buchert, 2nd Grade Teacher
Abbey is in her seventh year of teaching, and second year at Cascadia Elementary School in Seattle, Washington. Greatly influenced by her own 5th grade teacher, Abbey became an educator because she desired to show children that learning could be a positive and exciting experience. Understanding the link between parent involvement and student success, Abbey has practiced communication with her parents throughout her career. In search of an engagement platform that guaranteed privacy, Abbey began using LivingTree for her class in the fall of 2015. Here’s Abbey’s LivingTree Story!
Describe your parent engagement strategy and methodology prior to LivingTree. “I started out by sending newsletters to my parents; then I tried Edmodo, and later, Blogspot. There was no form of privacy or security with Blogspot, and I didn’t like that. If someone was searching for our class, they could have found our site and saw the pictures and messages I posted. I was initially attracted to LivingTree because of its privacy.”
How did you find out about LivingTree? “I first heard about LivingTree through my brother. One day while helping my nephew with his homework, my brother brought up LivingTree to check the day’s homework assignment. After hearing the good things he had to say about LivingTree as a parent, I became really interested.”
Why did you decide to use a new method or tool for parent engagement? “My main issue with using a blog was that it lacked privacy. My principal wanted me to use something more secure. I also used a newsletter the first couple of years of teaching, but I didn’t like that – it felt too old school. I thought it would be nice to have something like a social network.”
What was your implementation of LivingTree like? “I thought it was simple. I didn’t read any tutorials; I just played around with the platform. I loved how easy it was for parents to join – I really, really like the printable group code sheet – I just had to print it out and hand the directions to my parents. Unlike other applications I’ve tried, my parents haven’t had trouble understanding how to use LivingTree. They were excited about how easy it was… It did take a couple of “don’t forget to check LivingTree,” reminders for my parents to get in the habit of checking the feed. At first, I was worried about the two-way conversation piece. I thought I might get an overwhelming amount of messages from parents, but I haven’t had a parent abuse this capability – Parents message me in LivingTree, and I can easily check my LivingTree inbox during class. “
What were your results using LivingTree? “I have always communicated with parents a lot; but with LivingTree, I think they have a better sense of what’s going on in the class. Parents can always look at their feed to check our calendar or scroll through posts. Before, all of the information was in a newsletter that got lost. I know my parents are using LivingTree because I receive comments and ‘likes’ on my posts. The typical emails asking, “when is this test happening?” or “when is this assignment due?” have stopped. I also just like how easy it is to share pictures. With LivingTree, it takes two seconds to share a photo post, so it is no hassle at all. It is also nice to have everything in one space – parents can go back and find everything right there.”
What feature do you use the most? “I share a lot of messages & photos throughout the week; and every Monday I’ll share a newsletter-type post with my class. We’ve been doing a postcard project all year, and so that’s an ongoing update. I use the calendar periodically for due dates, book reports, and events I want the parents to come to. I upload book reports as files, and I share a lot of photos throughout the week.”
What would you say to teachers who are hesitant to use technology for engagement? “I think technology is something that is accessible for everyone. I would say it’s a great tool for keeping parents in the know. Most parents are used to Facebook or Instagram, so they really enjoy seeing photos of their children in class. I think parents like to see what’s going on in the classroom. When they see their children happy, it makes them happy.”
What would you do if LivingTree were taken away? “I would be really sad because I like LivingTree a lot. I do know I would stick with something safe and secure!”
What one thing would you say about LivingTree to others? “I would definitely say it’s easy! I’m a big fan of things that aren’t complicated. It’s easy and organized, which are the two biggest things for me. And my parents love it – they feel like they’re a part of the classroom. I don’t have to stress out when I forget to share information because I can just make a quick post at home with my phone.”
“LivingTree allows us to take a leap forward in community building by providing us with our own private social network for collaboration and engagement across our district, school, and classroom communities.” – Adrian Garcia, PSJA ISD Chief Technology Officer
Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, located in South Texas just north of Mexico, serves ~32,000 students. By the numbers, PSJA ISD is 89% economically disadvantaged, 98.9% Latino, 11% ESL, 35% Bilingual, and 6% migrant in population.
As a nationally recognized district, PSJA ISD has done incredible work in pushing the bar for high school graduation and college success rates. PSJA wanted to build on this success and develop broader community within their schools and district. PSJA faced language, technology, and cultural barriers when building community and partnership. They sought to reach as many parents as possible and to empower parents by giving them a voice into the education community. To do this, PSJA ISD implemented LivingTree in an effort to include all families via mobile application and two-way translation. PSJA ISD has been using LivingTree since the spring semester of 2014. In the fall 2015 school semester alone (time period beginning August 1, 2015), PSJA opened a virtual window to their classrooms more than 20,000 times. Their community has engaged within the network by commenting 2500+ times and showing appreciation in 42,999 instances:
Irving ISD, a district serving approximately 35,000 students in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, began using LivingTree in November 2014. The district has earned a number of accolades, including being named the 2015 national Advanced Placement District of the Year; an “amazing CTE program” in the U.S.; and having its high schools recognized among the top 10% of high schools nationwide by U.S. News and World Report. The district was looking for ways to share those success stories and continue its parent engagement efforts after opening Parent Centers in each of its schools. Like many school districts across the state, Irving ISD serves a diverse student population and wanted a way to reach ALL families, regardless of home language (54 languages are spoken in Irving ISD), the parent’s education level or socioeconomic status.
Irving ISD has strong belief in the benefits of parent and community engagement, and has a stated district goal of enabling and ensuring community engagement and collaboration. Based on the results of district wide surveys of teachers, parents, and students in spring 2014, Irving ISD sought to establish digital two-way dialogue accessible via mobile application. That’s when Irving ISD decided to implement LivingTree to meet their two-way dialogue, translation, mobile, and privacy needs. “In Irving ISD we started out with 13 campuses as early adopters of LivingTree. The feedback we received from parents, principals and teachers has been incredible. It’s helped solidify parents’ trust in our schools,” says Lesley Weaver, Irving ISD’s Director of Communications. In the spring of 2015, Irving ISD rolled out LivingTree for the entire district to realize their goal of an engaged and empowered community. In the 2015-16 school year alone, Irving ISD has experienced 30,689 total content shares. This includes almost 10,000 photos (virtual windows) shared with the community and a fully engaged network shown by 1,378 comments and 15,485 likes on content. Parents, students and staff have a single, private place to engage and share conversation.
“Using the LivingTree platform, our school was able to build a much tighter community and meaningful engagement with our families. It has truly changed our level of transparency with parents and how we converse, share, and coordinate in the context of educating our children. – Eden Hinds, Briargrove Elementary Principal, Houston ISD
Briargrove Elementary serves ~910 students in the Houston School District. Nearly half the school’s population is Latino and Asian-Pacific, and 23% of students are in ESL programs. Prior to LivingTree, the school relied heavily on room parents and the PTO to relay information and volunteer opportunities to parents. Despite the combined use of fliers, email blasts, and newsletters, parents felt uninformed. Results from a 2011-2012 survey showed parents felt excluded and disconnected from the school.
In the fall of 2012, Briargrove turned to LivingTree to streamline communication and create safe, two-way engagement between teachers and parents. PTO president Ellecia Knolle explained LivingTree’s two-way engagement platform enabled admin and teachers to communicate: “for the first time, parents were equally informed.” At the end of their first year with LivingTree, parents readily voiced their renewed trust in the school.
Activity in Briargrove’s network has steadily increased with each year: Between August 1st, 2015 and March 2016, nearly 1,000 calendar events and 5,000 posts of messages, photos, and files between and across classes were shared. With over 2,500 comments, and 20,000 ‘likes,’ the school knows they’re reaching parents. As of Fall 2015, 100% of classrooms were engaged on LivingTree and fully 50% of network members were contributing content, commentary, or appreciation! Briargrove has successfully resolved the disconnect parents originally felt with the school.
Guest Blogger: Shayne Byrne, CrossPoint Christian School, Lead Teacher – 4’s
Communication is key when teaching. Our parents want to know what is going on in their children’s school lives and LivingTree helps bridge that gap helping alleviate the wonder of whether or not parents are seeing the information sent to them. As long as they check in at least once a week they will see everything from our class on the conversations page. I had a parent miss the first week of school due to a business trip. She was so happy to see the photos I posted on LivingTree of her child the first week. It helped her know her child was safe and happy while at school while she was away.
I love having the information on the conversation page so you can look back in the history and see everything that has been posted since the school year started. If a parent missed something they know where to find it. The room moms are using the website to send information to other parents as well. This way I stay informed as to what is being sent between all the parents using the website. I love that parents are using it as well!
It is all in one spot…newsletters, important reminders, room mom info, photos, etc.
Best Feature: I love posting photos for the parents to see. It is easy and they always comment on the photos. It gives them a glimpse into the classroom since they cannot always be there. I love that it is so portable with the phone apps as well. I can upload information from anywhere by using my phone!
Parent Receptivity: The parents have been really positive. The room moms like to have a place to share information with the entire group of parents as well as with me. They especially love the photos.
More about Shayne:
Shayne is a graduate from Iowa State University with a degree in early childhood education/special education. She moved to TX to do her student teaching 15 years ago. She taught Kindergarten for 3 years, PPCD(preschool program for children with disabilities) for 5 years, and PreK for 3 years in public schools in Houston, TX. At this point, she took 3 years off to raise her baby boy. When she was ready to start him in preschool, she got a part time job at the private preschool where he was registered. She is now in her second year there teaching 4 year olds. Shayne loves the relationships she is able to build with the families of her students in a small school. She has been married to a wonderful man for almost ten years, and they have a sweet little dog named Ducky. Shayne also loves to read, swim, travel, and spend time with family & friends. She is trying to love running as well as cooking. Both of those things are in the “works in progress” files.